The Research Behind Our Play Principles

Have you ever wanted some backup or extra talking points on why advocating for safe and healthy play is worth the effort?
Here’s what we know:

What happens on the playground impacts the entire school day

A report from the National Academy of Medicine found that children who are more active “show greater attention, have faster cognitive processing speed, and perform better on standardized academic tests than children who are less active.”

Games help kids learn to regulate emotions

Conflict and disappointment teach students how to handle small failures or mistakes. A retrospective Holistic Student Assessment of Playworks Junior Coaches showed 78% of students improved in assertiveness, 67% improved in emotional control, and 91% reported a positive change on items related to empathy. (Source: Playworks Holistic Student Assessment-Retrospective results, The Pear Institute, 2017)

Play helps kids learn self control

Through play, students practice controlling movement, following game rules, managing frustration and anger, and making decisions. In Ready to be Counted, Transforming Education, self discipline is shown to be a stronger predictor of academic success than IQ. Children’s ability to maintain self-control at a young age is a predictor of a range of outcomes later in life, even more than intelligence or socioeconomic status. Children with high self-control are 8 times less likely to drop out of high school. (Source: Gabrieli, Ansel, and Krachman, 2015, p.1)

Play builds resilience

In Physical Activity and Positive Youth Development, Kris Madsen argues that play and physical activity reduce students’ isolation and increase interaction. Organized play—when kids practice failing and trying again—develops stronger emotional resilience. (Source: Madsen, 2011, p.463)

Play builds social skills

Games and cultural norms provide opportunities for prosocial skills, group agreements, and ground rules for group interaction. In Teaching Adolescents to Become Learners, the authors cite a study showing that the social-emotional adjustment of students at school is predictive of test scores. Social-emotional skills enhance social interactions that help minimize disruptions to learning.

We could go on (and maybe we will for next month’s newsletter!) with even more research on how play impacts stress and anxiety, empathy, relationships with adults, and economic success.

But the biggest takeaway should be this:

At Playworks, we’ve seen studies like this proven in real time at hundreds of elementary schools over more than 25 years, with better recesses leading to fewer fights, fewer injuries, and fewer trips to the principal’s office—and students coming back to class ready to learn.

Know another teacher, principal, or parent who would be interested in our Theory of Play?

Invite them to sign up for Recess Lab content and advice.

Do you have a tip for your peers or a question about safe and healthy play? Let us know here.

Stories from the Field

We’ve received more than 2,000 stories from principals, teachers, and parents since launching Recess Lab, and we’re sharing one or two (with the author’s permission) in our monthly newsletters. Here are two submissions from February and March:

“Recess is our highest referral time. We added student conflict managers to morning recesses and that has been positive but not enough. Our lunch staff appears overwhelmed and out of resources. . . . I love the idea of teaching recess—of getting the staff involved and pre-teaching conflict resolutions as easy as Rock Paper Scissors. On our recent family survey, our lack of playground equipment was noted. If we had better games, activities, and a positive approach I think we could help overcome the physical challenges of our playground.”
—Barbara F., Belgrade, Montana

“I teach 5th grade, which is part of our middle school. The only recess they had was 15 minutes right after lunch. This wasn’t enough. Students were antsy and unfocused during afternoon classes. So we took 15 minutes from academics and added a second recess. We noticed an improvement. They were so thrilled and thankful to have this extra time and we did not have any behavior issues. However, this year we have seen more issues. We had playground balls, but they were throwing them at each other and on the roof, so we don’t use them anymore. I would be interested in ideas that would help them love recess, play respectfully, burn some energy, while building in some team building activities.”
—Theresa S., New London, Wisconsin

Want to know how your Recess stacks up? Take the Recess Checkup today. This three-minute quiz will help you identify areas of strength and those needing improvement.